It was looking so good for European Cross Country Champion Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands for approximately 7.7km of the women’s 8km long race run on a chilly afternoon on the wind swept Fukuoka plain which faces the Genkai Sea.
On a picturesque course lined with blossoming Cherry trees, it looked like it was going to be a 'gun to tape' win for Kiplagat, a former Kenyan who became Dutch in 2003. Kiplagat who had won in Japan, taking the Osaka marathon title in 2002, and is the reigning Rotterdam champion, has always expressed her preference for road and track running over cross country. However, her performance today on top of her European title last December, must now dispel any lack of belief in her ability at the discipline.
But the task for Kiplagat always seemed to be too great, even when she passed the bell with a three second lead. For the Dutch woman, who was sixth in 2004 at the long race, her only previous outing at the World Cross, was being pursued by reigning World short and long race champion, Tirunesh Dibaba, who headed a green vested posse composed, at one moment, of the entire Ethiopian squad. In fact after the last two Kenyans (Evelyne Wambui and Alice Chelangat) were dropped at the end of the second lap, the only other serious contender for the medals was Australia’s Benita Johnson, the 2004 long race World Cross champion.
Today's outing was a very simple affair. The gun sounded, and after less than 1000m had been run under the tentative lead of Tanzania’s Pascalina Bombo, it was Kiplagat who hit the front. Though never away totally clear, she was not to be headed again until coming off the final hill, and turning into the finishing straight with about 300m of the 8km race remaining.
Entering the final lap, the order had been Kiplagat, followed by three Ethiopians in close order, Dibaba, Meselech Melkamu, like Dibaba a former World Junior champion, and Wuder Yimer, with Johnson still in tow. Just prior to the bell, a fourth Ethiopian had been dropped (Meserat Tufa), and she was to be overtaken by Japan’s Kayoko Fukushi for 6th place by the finish of the race.
Kiplagat still looked very strong, and continued to push the pace but Dibaba was never adrift by more than three seconds, and we always sensed that this story was not yet closed.
Attacking the last hill at a furious pace, Dibaba closed on Kiplagat by the top, and on the down slope passed Kiplagat, and turning into the straight quickly broke clear, consigning Kiplagat to silver.
Dibaba, retained her title, crossing in 25:21, with Kiplagat five seconds behind, with Melkamu in third (25:38). Johnson finished well in fourth (25:43) to split up the African-born finish, ahead of Yimer.
"I knew that I could win in the last lap, with about a half-lap left," confirmed Dibaba. "I knew I had better finishing speed, so I was not demoralized to see her taking the lead. I wasn't feeling very well. I had some stitches, and that was the reason (for letting her hold the lead). I won with God's will, and it was very hard...I hope to take many more medals in cross country."
Kiplagat in second was delighted. “This was entirely unexpected for me. I nearly won. This is an marvellous result for me."
“I thought if I could get away before those last hills I might have been able to win it but when we got there I had no energy.”
"I had a lot of fun today, and I like the idea of going back to my roots to do it again (Mombasa 2007). Kenya is my birthplace, but I am married to Holland. The Kenyan fans today were yelling to me, 'Come on, our child, we want to see you win.' I want to go to Mombasa and support them as they supported me.
For the best Japanese, Fukushi, who led her team to an unexpected bronze (80pts), she was happy."I didn't expect sixth, so maybe God helped me as well."
Ethiopia cleaned up the gold with ease (1, 3, 5, 7) by packing inside the top-8 with a total of 16pts, and Kenya got the silver (39pts).
Chris Turner for the IAAF